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193. Qualities and Skills for Bishops

I’m frequently asked my opinion about what natural gifts or acquired skills are important for effective service as a Bishop in the United Methodist Church.  I usually refrain from saying much about this so that no one will take my words as expressing a preference for one particular person or another, but since endorsements have not yet been formed in most of our conferences, I decided to share a few observations.

First, Bishops should have a strong record of effective congregational leadership.   Bishops have primary responsibility for leading conferences to recruit pastors, train pastors, credential pastors, deploy pastors, start congregations, mobilize mission, transform congregations, and lead congregations to lead people to active faith in Jesus Christ, and these require a profound understanding and extensive experience of congregational dynamics.  Mediocre, mistaken, simplistic, or unclear notions about how congregations work, what causes churches to grow, or how to mobilize people toward an objective will not suffice.   Skills honed through years of successfully leading fruitful, growing congregations, such as preaching, teaching, partnering with laity, supervising staff, working with groups, pastoral care, and administration are helpful in the role of Bishop.  And congregations are the primary means by which the church fulfills its mission, and so Bishops should love the local church and understand how God uses faith communities to impact the world.

Second, Bishops must be unceasingly focused on the mission of the church. The office requires people who passionately and unrelentingly push, provoke, remind, stimulate, and inspire pastors and laity to excellence, fruitfulness, and effectiveness in ministry.  They must be capable of mobilizing people in a large, complex organization toward purposeful work and common values, and must cultivate clarity of purpose, confidence in our mission, and hope for the future.  Bishops serve the mission of Christ and not merely the pastors of the conference, the desires of the congregations, or the preferences of the members, and so they repeatedly refocus the attention of the organization toward the mission field, toward the people God has placed in our congregations here to reach through our witness and service.  Bishops cannot become inordinately distracted by lesser good things, tertiary priorities, unnecessary meetings, useless organizational churning, fruitless conflict, or archaic structures meant only to preserve insider prerogatives.  Their life is the mission of Christ.

Third, serving effectively requires an all-embracing vision of ministry and an ability to be Bishop to all United Methodists, not just some.  Bishops should demonstrate a history of encouraging diverse theological, cultural, and generational faith expressions. They should easily support worship styles different from their own personal faith experience and willingly open the door to the faith expressions of the young.  The most important distinction in our church today is not between liberal or conservative, contemporary or traditional, young or old, black or white, but between the missionally-driven and those who are complacent, blaming, ignoring, or denying our mission, and so we need Bishops who are not merely one-issue leaders, bureaucrats, or CEO’s but who embrace an expansive view of ministry, engaging the world with missional energy.  We need outward-focused Bishops for whom serving Christ is an adventure rather than a job, a journey to which they are willing to say Yes, and Yes again.  I pray for Bishops who are thrilled at the prospect, anxious to get started, ready in a moment’s notice, alive with Wesley’s “the world is my parish” spirit, unlimited in vision, undimmed by failure, exuberant in spirit.

Fourth, Bishops must have a high pain threshold. Bishops see much grief, loss, anger, hurt, conflict, and despair, and they necessarily work with victims of misconduct, churches in distress, people in poverty, victims of natural disasters, broken homes, congregations in decline, and pastors facing loss and transition.  Many feelings are directed toward the Bishop as the representative of the church, and Bishops cannot afford to take criticism personally, hold grudges, or obsessively overwork negative experiences.

Fifth, serving as Bishop requires patience and resilience. The work requires the ability to live comfortably with ambiguity, tension, paradox, unfinished projects, imperfect planning, and problems that cannot be resolved, and Bishops must do so without trying to fix everything too quickly or imposing their own will too strongly.   They must make friends with creative chaos and lead with resilience, agility, patience, restraint, and flexibility while remaining persistent in purpose.  They must be life-long learners because nothing that they have experienced before totally prepares them for this work.

Sixth, Bishops should be utterly offended by the decline of the church, willing to take responsibility for it, open to innovation, and yet be unafraid of failure. To reverse decline requires high-risk initiatives, transformation of systems, and support of emerging patterns.  Bishops must be capable of handling the stress of disappointing people in order to lead through change.  Bishops preside over immensely large, complex organizations that involve hundreds of churches, thousands of people, and millions of dollars and this requires extraordinary organizational competence and experience.

Seventh, serving well requires that Bishops find satisfaction in the accomplishments of others.  They exercise a ministry of encouragement.  They are not on the front lines—reaching new people, leading mission teams, teaching bible studies, preaching funerals, inviting people into the body of Christ.  When such ministries come to fruition, Bishops naturally and appropriately direct the credit to pastors and congregational leaders. Bishops are background people for congregational ministry; they are part of the unseen support team that helps people help people, and so they should never pine for attention, seek to take credit, or feel the need to take center stage.

Eighth, serving well requires unending good humor, and those Bishops do best who demonstrate humility, graciousness, and winsomeness while also being able to capture the imagination, hold the respect, engage the attention, and mobilize the response of large gatherings of people.  Bishops dare not take themselves too seriously.

Ninth, since United Methodism has a global mission, Bishops should have a well-worn passport, or at least significant inter-cultural experience. Whether through VIM projects, international service, significant language learning, or other inter-cultural work, Bishops should reveal an active curiosity and love for people from diverse backgrounds.

Tenth, this work requires unusual physical stamina. I average 140 nights in hotels, 30,000 miles of driving, 80 flights, 60 days of meetings, and 180 prepared presentations per year, while also performing all the ordinary office work, answering thousands of letters and emails, supervising hundreds of pastors, monitoring legal issues, reading 50 books, and writing 40 blogs and a book each year.  The physical challenges of the office are remarkable beyond what most people realize.  While I can’t tell you exactly what a Bishop does, I can tell you that it takes all day every day!

Eleventh, Bishops should not need to be Bishops for their happiness, sense of worth, identity, or to meet their own personal needs.  God calls people to ministry; the church calls people to the Episcopacy.  The office is best served by those who can take it or leave it, who are willing to serve but who are not desperate to achieve; who are willing to pour out their life in this form of service, but who do not need to promote themselves to make it happen.

Twelfth, and most importantly, anyone considered for the Episcopacy must have an absolute and undying love for Christ, and for the body of Christ made visible in the United Methodist Church. I pray for Bishops with a well-developed interior life, deep-spirited, and attentive to the wild, raw beauty of the spiritual life, fully in love with God and desiring God with eagerness, humility, and passion.  Those who do this work most effectively take an unfathomable delight and infinite joy in serving the United Methodist Church.  They love Mr. Wesley’s connection, and the United Methodist way of shaping lives for Jesus Christ!

Yours in Christ,


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15 Responses to 193. Qualities and Skills for Bishops

  1. larry says:

    What I find interesting is what is not on your list; of course, no list could be totally complete. However, I don’t see here a call for bishops to uphold, teach, instruct or defend doctrine – nothing at all in the vein of doctrine, at least in my quick reading. Just an observation.

    • larry says:

      I should add, perhaps the doctrinal commitments intentionally fall outside what you mean by the phrase “qualities and skills,” and you are assuming those commitments are in place?

  2. Roger Cary says:

    Reading your blog provided an immense amount of insight into the office of, not just the Missouri Annual Conference Bishop, but the overall activities and issues a Bishop faces each and every day. As a licensed local pastor I want to say a very herat-felt thank you for sacrificing so much to lead and inspire today’s church as we redesign our way of reaching people and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In our own lives at the local level we live out this calling of sacrifice and servanthood through our committment to learning and growth. As a seminary student attending a very non-traditional learning experience I am gaining insight on new ways to reach people using the technology that is currently available. For myself, this is one of the brightest futures to reach others and minister to so many that have been disengaged for far too long. Our prayers as one fo your local congregations are with you each and every day.

  3. Nancy Ward says:

    Very well said. Thank you for being specific in your observations and for reminding all of us that “it’s not about me!” It’s about “undying love for Jesus Christ.”

  4. Toni says:

    Thank you for being open and available. What should a district superintendent look like??

  5. Peter Aguilar says:

    Kind of like a credit score rating for Bishops? I like this. There are some Bishops who are elected who never have had any experience as the pastor of a local church, and if they had did not pastor large congregations, and/or did not lead their congregations to a measured mark of growth that test the qualities that you highlighted. I particularly appreciate #12.

  6. Jim Hall says:

    You wrote. Bishops should demonstrate a history of encouraging diverse theological, cultural, and generational faith expressions. I may misunderstand what you are attempting to say but I thought the United Methodist Church had a theology and doctrine that all of us should teach and preach. Do not misunderstand me, membership should be open to all who believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. This openness of membership will lead to a membership with diverse theological opinions but despite this openness, should not the Bishop be teaching, preaching and standing for our methodist theology and doctrine?

    Just a member.


  7. Jim Voigt says:

    I think when it comes to leadership, this is the best blog you’ve put out! Thanks for the perspective. The position of Bishop is not nearly as glamorous as I thought it was;)

  8. Excellent list! Thanks for taking time to record this insights, I hope this will get broader coverage, i.e. in conferences, general church publications (Interpreter?), etc. Thanks for you good leadership! Continued prayers and blessings. Will pass on to our VA Advocate editor with a request that it be considered for inclusion.

  9. Dotty Dake says:

    Amen! Thank you for your thoughtful articulation of your insights that, from my lay person’s perspective, appear to be excellent criteria. I hope that you share your article broadly with current bishops, pastors being considered to serve as bishops, and persons in the decision-making process. This can be encouraging, uplifting, and energizing for all.

  10. Clyde Chesnutt says:

    What about bishops who have held college presidencies or those who had extensive service on the general boards of our church? Your Number One criteria for the episcopal office is a pastor who has led growing churches. While significantly important, it seems to me that numerous bishops with major experience other than pastoring local churches have also made enormous contributions to our church.

  11. Jim L says:

    I think Bishops should be more connected to the churches not trying to manage from far distances.
    This also goes for District Superintendents. I think being more connected with other churches is
    also a very important practice to strengthening the state conferences. You are in a powerful position
    Don’t preach to choir, preach to the people. Your presence would mean a lot.

    I love your site
    V/r Jim

  12. Susan says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  13. Bob Soong says:

    I’m so glad to have discovered Five Practices. What an amazing revelation!!!!! I’ve had the most mistaken, misunderstood, and exaggerated image of the Bishop by looking at, studying the mascot of Battling Bishops of Ohio Wesleyan, i.e., the stern-faced red-robed character, snarling, watching, casting an evil eye on any would-be opponents. Without those robes, I would/could not know or recognize my Bishop and District Superintendent at all.

  14. Dayton Griffin-Sloat says:

    I am familiar with the work that Missouri Annual Conference has done in working through family systems issues with its clergy (I know Bill Selby) and so I am not too surprised at the depth of your reflection here. I am favorably impressed with your willingness to offer these twelve qualities and skills which, we must admit, are rare indeed. I would not expect very many candidates for bishop to embody them all and the leadership quality they embody, nor should we expect this, but it is the best description of excellence in episcopal leadership that I have read. I have become a disciple of John Kaiser (Winning on Purpose, Abingdon) and am convinced that ministry is the work of those in our churches and leadership is the work of pastors (like Quality one). By extension the work of bishops is primarily that of leadership as well, leading pastors primarily, but also, through teaching and preaching, leading lay leadership in Annual Conferences. Like several of those who have commented, I have found our UMC presentation of faith essentials anemic, unclear and uncompelling. If we have an “offer of transformation” (Southern and Norton, Cracking Your Congregation’s Code), it sounds something like this: “We are nice people; come to our church and you can be a nice person too.” I prefer an approach that goes out to find those wounded by sin and introduce them to a risen Jesus with a basic faith statement: “He is Lord, He is risen.” All we do at church needs to be directed to helping people meet Jesus, in the context of God’s love and then grow, at our churches, into becoming and living as fully developed followers of him. Our UM mission statement “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” is pretty close to this. Now all we need to do as Pastors, church members or even members of the heirarchy, is work together to do this bette (see qualities 6, and 12). Thanks for a great statement! I am sending a copy to our bishop who I am sure will appreciate it as I know she is a fan of yours. Consider me one too.

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